I think they’re both about being present. And I think I’m not aware of it, so I’m the most present when I’m cooking. I get into a trance, and it’s the same when I’m painting. It’s like when I used to wait tables, and you’d get slammed and just know what move had to be next. You’re not thinking about yourself anymore, you’re just like ok, this guy-that guy-pick that up- and there’s something exhaustingly beautiful about it. But you inevitably start to repeat yourself in these things, so there have to be ways to keep it interesting. If you’re in the kitchen and you have to prep 25 pounds of chicken, it gets really difficult to find inspiration in that.I had this amazing soufflé two summers ago in France. At the end of this meal they brought out these two soufflés, which were 12 inches across and peppered with these chunks of chocolate. Ten inches high. The best part about it was the service. This woman comes out with these two giant mushroom cloud cakes, and takes this really long saber. She takes off the mushroom cap with one move, and cuts it in half, then does the same with the bottom half. You’re just thinking to yourself, There’s just no way I’m going to be able to fucking eat all this. This is insane. But you bite into it and you go, holy shit, and you think of all the other soufflés you’ve had, and this one is of course better. Now, every time I have a soufflé I’m going to go back to that moment. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that kind of experience, because I make sculptures and paintings and pictures and I want people to see them in person. And then maybe they’ll see that work again at another time in their life and might remember who they were at that point. Those are the things I feel like transcend all of the noise, which has just become an aspect of our lives whether we like it or not. Some of it’s great, but a lot of it is soul-sucking as a creative person.I decided to do a performance I called Sushi Sushi. During the whole thing, I made scallop hand rolls. I wore a denim kimono—which is not really a kimono, but a Japanese work outfit that kind of looks like one—covered in paint, and I sat there wearing this kind of Jim Belushi Cheeseburger Cheeseburger look and made hand rolls. But one of the great things is that all these collectors come in, one of them bumps into me and hands me a bottle of wine to put with the rest of them like I’m a part of the staff. I don’t let on, and suddenly I’m the help, and 20 minutes later, the gallerists says, “Have you met Jay? This is his show,” and you see the collector be like, that’s the guy I thought was the help...It’s not necessarily a trick, it’s just playing on these social assumptions that we have.
I like the idea of these power struggles. The chef is hidden in the back, maybe they come out and take a bow, but for the most part your food appears and you take it for granted. It’s the same thing with art. Here’s this artist hero, and he or she is supposed to show us the lie that brings us closer to the truth and all that. But then, when the shows over, he goes home and makes toast and turns on the TV. So I like to conflate those two roles.
I spent the better part of an afternoon scrolling endlessly through his work on a spare Tumblr page dubbed, 'Restaurant-Restaurant.' For years, I had no idea who he was, and there was a certain pleasure in that. Some unknown industry insider out there somewhere was collecting restaurant stationary and bringing them to life with cheeky tableaus, splashy with color, a joyous depiction of the cherished angst of restaurant life. When I found myself on the phone, miraculously, with this mystery artist, I knew he was the real deal because all we talked about was food.
There's an exuberance to the work of a good doodler, and Batlle is often hailed as one of the best. In the art world—and take these assumptions with a grain of salt, since I have approximately zero experience or knowledge of the inner workings of that particular microcosm—he's probably known for being a bit of a trickster. Anyone fascinated by the social commentary of eating out, of luxury and gluttony and money, would have to be. He likes putting on what he calls 'food performances' at some of his shows, cooking finger food in a corner while collectors mill about, oblivious to who he really is. It's a little triumph.
His art carries that invisible marking of an industry veteran; enjoyable to those who aren't, and deeply hilarious to those who are. Below you'll find a few examples of this work, paired with excerpts from a much longer conversation, one that zig-zagged all over the finer points of a meal and the insanity of life as a New York maître d'.
"Tonight I’m really excited to steam vegetables, which is embarrassing," he mentions in closing. Artists! They're just like us!
You can’t pay your rent in New York on $7 an hour. But I wanted to see what it was like to be a real line cook, and so I did it for 9 months. I learned that I could keep up, but then a friend of mine introduced me to this woman whose father owned this restaurant that was looking for waiters. I went, trained that lunch, and made $700 in tips that day. I had just made ten days work at my other job in a few hours.
After eight months as a waiter there, I was promoted to general manager and was running the restaurant. People walk in, they want a drink, and they’re hungry. They’re in the worst state possible. Then you have to tell them it’s an hour wait. The kind of people coming into this restaurant were not used to hearing the word no, let alone that there was a wait. Anna Wintour used to come in at least once a week, and she had a table she used to sit at, Table 42. She was amazing because she was the fastest diner. She’d always have a dry kir, a bottle of unchilled Pellegrino, and lamb Black and Blue with mashed potatoes. She would finish everything within 40 minutes and tip 40%. I used to say she’d tip 1% for every minute at the table. She was consistent. She’s so notorious in the fashion world for being difficult, but for me as maitre’d, she’d come in and the waiters loved her.
Prune is probably my favorite restaurant to go to in New York on a regular basis. I went there for lunch when they were still doing it, and had the best omelette. It comes out like a deflated football, in a good way. They do a deep-fried oyster with a remoulade inside, and serve powdered sugar with Tabasco. You mix the two together and drizzle it on top. She does it with fried livers too. Unbelievable. So I’m eating this omelette, and next to me is David Burns from Talking Heads, and then behind me is Captain Picard, Patrick Stewart. So we finish our meal and my wife goes to the bathroom. I guess Patrick Stewart’s girlfriend was a fan of David Burns. So they stand up and do this like, famous person dance. It was the most awkward conversation ever, and I’m sitting in the middle of it, physically.
I’m wondering what the whole foodie thing is going to be like in 20 years. I don’t know. I think it might be bad? I don’t want to judge it...food is great, and we should have fun and care about it and write about it and venerate it, but it’s a little much. Even me, as the “Epicurean Painter,” I want to put a knife in my throat! It’s so cheesy.
Everything in our experiences has become so saturated and so intense, and that’s the problem with The Foodie I think. Because you could have something so simple like the perfect salad or the perfect roast chicken, and it’s almost better because it’s so normal. And consistent. And you just know it’s right. Or like with paintings, my favorite painting is Matisse’s The Piano Lesson, and I don’t know why. But I go to see it, and there’s so many dumb things about it but it’s just so simply painted. It doesn’t have to be the best meal you’ve ever had in order to like it. Life cannot be all high points.